Demonology 101 by Faith Erin Hicks, Reviewed by Kelly J. Cooper
Story-telling is cyclic. The good guys are up, the bad guys are down. The bad guys are up, the good guys are down. It's a distillation of the rhythmic nature of the human experience. But this pattern becomes a problem when it's circular and repetitive, instead of progressive. Like people, some characters do the same thing over and over, repeat the same shtick or fail to grow despite the wealth of experience heaped upon them by the authors of their webcomic plotlines. Fortunately for us, there are also comics like Demonology 101 that specialize in plot development and character evolution.
Per creator Faith Erin Hicks, Demonology 101 is "an online comic about high school and other forces of evil." You could label it fantasy, although not in the traditional elves-and-unicorns sense. It's set in the present day, in a reality skewed from ours by the existence of demons. It's also chock full of dark humor and dread times. Offered up in a serialized format, the webcomic is currently broken down into 5 episodes. Each episode consists of several chapters; each chapter contains several comic book-style pages worth of story. The plot focuses on a girl named Raven, her friends, her guardian, and her enemies, as they uncover details about Raven's past and battle over her future.
The comic is rendered in black and white (except for some colored cover art and a brief experiment with color in Episode 5), with heavy gray shading, which is very much in keeping with the emotional tone of good versus evil in the story – no one is perfectly good nor perfectly evil and there are lots of shades of gray between the two. It's also dark in both tone and atmosphere: a character's misery can be reflected through the background, for example.
Hicks' art is brimful of goodness and her style sings out as unique. It has a sketchy energy, with lines everywhere pulling the reader's eye all across the page, enlivening the scene. Her characters are very human, drawn in proportion and with wonderful body language and facial expressions that fully express the character's emotions at the time. This page, part of an extended dramatic moment between two of the main characters, serves as an excellent example.
Her style is Manga-influenced – she even has the occasional, over-simplified kawaii moment early on. Hicks favors the specular highlights (light reflections) in the hair and big eyes of her characters, both of which are very popular in Manga style. But she doesn't overdo it – her characters are consistently believable.
The noses she draws are especially fun – each is a one-of-a-kind. In fact, each character has his or her own distinct face and variable hair style (hair down, hair up, hair back) that changes with the situation – wind blowing, characters fighting, lying down, leaning over. The characters are never static – they are not always wearing glasses nor do they always sport strange and spiky gravity-defying hair that never changes despite the character's angle of appearance.
The writing is solid. Conversations are believable and action flows naturally. Even the occasional exposition bits are good and don't drag the narrative down.
However, the most fascinating aspect of Demonology 101 is its sense of evolution, of both the plot lines and the characters. Perhaps it's because the main character, her two closest friends, and even a few of her enemies, are teenagers, going through a part of life that's in constant flux, with growth as a metabolic requirement. Maybe it's that Hicks' abilities are constantly improving, both as story-teller and as artist. Either way, the stories start out seemingly simple, but move through logical – if supernatural – plot points to deeper and more complex levels.
The overall feel of the comic is very grounded despite the fantastic material, due to Hicks' realistic representation of the characters through appearance and dialogue. Technically, Hicks started the story in 1999 with Episode 1, but she recently (fall/winter of 2002) redrew the entire first episode and revamped the plot a bit to clean up some loose ends. Her archive is easy to navigate - each page loads fast and allows the reader to go back or forward or up to the main page (Hicks used the rewrite to also make navigation improvements over the original design).
The lettering is widely spaced and a bit small for Episodes 1 (the original version), 2 and 3. Hicks has since switched to a tighter version that uses all capital letters for Episodes 4 and 5 and for the redraw of Episode 1. While the latter is an improvement, both are readable.
Demonology 101 is excellent comic, a complex striptease of a story, with just a bit of information revealed here and there. Each episode builds to dramatic conflicts and resolutions, while still adding on small revelations that create a complex and textured picture of a world very similar to our own, but with its own peculiar rules. Imagine Demonology 101 as a spiral, evolving and building upward, or a pyramid, with a broad foundation and a really interesting pointy bit on top. Or stop daydreaming and go read this excellent comic!